Tressel Makes His Case for President of U. of Akron

 YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Jim Tressel, executive vice president for student success at the University of Akron, delivered a meticulous and thorough presentation Thursday on why he should succeed Luis Proenza as president.

The former head football coach at Youngstown State and Ohio State universities demonstrated a command of what faces the institution where he earned his master’s degree in education as when he drew up game plans in Youngstown and Columbus. 

Tressel, one of three finalists for the presidency at Akron -- and the presidency of Youngstown State -- sees the presidency at the University of Akron as an even stronger platform to continue his advocacy for student success.

His hour-long appearance in an auditorium before students, alumni, faculty and staff yesterday was the last opportunity for them to hear him (re)state his views and qualification and what a Tressel presidency would bring. The university carried his presentation on a webcast.

The other two finalists, Ronald Nykiel and Scott Scarborough, held similar hour-long forums earlier this week.

Tressel opened with a 10-plus minute statement that dwelled on the themes he’s sounded for two years at UA:

  • “Student success. That’s why we’re here.”
  • Teamwork. “What we need is to work together.”
  • Building and strengthening relationships with alumni and friends of the university. To this end, he founded a group to recruit Akron alumni to return to campus and volunteer to recruit students. That group had no members in August 2012 when Tressel announced its creation. Today it has 1,003 members. “We need to send out letters to alumni,” Tressel stated, “and when they see it, they don’t immediately think, ‘They’re asking for money.’ ”
  • Retention. “We’re all responsible for recruiting,” he said. “We’re 11% ahead of last year.”
  • Students must be ready to compete when they graduate. They must be as prepared with soft skills when they have completed their coursework.   
  • “The need to reduce [student] debt” so graduates don’t leave burdened with student loan repayments. Twelve years ago, the average Akron graduate graduated owing $20,000 in student loans. Today it’s $27,000, Tressel said.

In his opening remarks, Tressel was generous in crediting others for the success his office has enjoyed and minimized his own role.

In the ensuing question-and-answer period, Tressel was not asked about his simultaneous bid to become the next president of YSU. He addressed concerns about:

  • Funding athletics at the expense of academics.
  • How he would further develop the alumni recruiting organization he started.
  • What he would do to strengthen the academic program.
  • The role he sees for the provost he’ll work with.
  • Increasing diversity and recruiting foreign students to study at Akron.
  • Increasing the number of full-time faculty and relying less on adjunct instructors.
  • Encouraging more students to live on campus.
  • The minority of students, some 9%, who get 57% of the scholarship dollars, as a student alleged.

To political science professor John Green’s question about “the perception you might be biased in favor of athletics,” Tressel responded the opposite is far more likely. Noting he is a former athletics director (at Youngstown State), Tressel said that were he chosen president, the Akron athletics director might find the sports budget not to his liking. In any event, he would be working collegially with a finance team -- “No decisions will be made unilaterally” -- in drawing up budgets and that the his goal is “to reduce spending on athletics and create more revenue.”

Aware that he lacks a doctorate, Tressel called the office of provost “a crucial position. … The provost, in my mind, can be one of the most important decisions a president can make. … I would want to be very confident that a person in that position would be as selfless as they can be. … The provost is the chief operating officer of the university.”

A student asked what Tressel would do to flip the number of adjunct instructors who outnumber the full-time faculty and often are unavailable to help students because they don’t have office hours.

[The minutes of the Oct. 16, 2013, meeting of the university trustees reflect their awareness that Akron is second-lowest in the state for number of student credit hours taught by full-time faculty. Proenza reported that the number stood at 54%, up from 51% a year earlier.]

Tressel observed that adjunct faculty have an important role to play and contribute greatly to the university. Some possess an expertise full-time faculty don’t have. Achieving “the right blend,” the vice president of strategic engagement said, is a moving target. But “the adjunct faculty have a role” and many are good teachers.

Tressel and the other two finalists at YSU -- Mary Cullinan, president of Southern Oregon University, and Gary L. Miller, chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington -- will visit YSU next week and be questioned at public forums. Tressel will appear at 2 p.m. Monday in Tod Hall.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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